THE YOUNG STEP-MOTHER;
A CHRONICLE OF MISTAKES.
By CHARLOTTE M YONGE
Fail—yet rejoice, because no less The failure that makes thy distress May teach another full success.
Nor with thy share of work be vexed Though incomplete and even perplexed It fits exactly to the next. ADELAIDE A PROCTOR
'Have you talked it over with her?' said Mr. Ferrars, as his little slender wife met him under the beeches that made an avenue of the lane leading to Fairmead vicarage.
'Yes!' was the answer, which the vicar was not slow to understand.
'I cannot say I expected much from your conversation, and perhaps we ought not to wish it. We are likely to see with selfish eyes, for what shall we do without her?'
'Dear Albinia! You always taunted me with having married your sister as much as yourself.'
'So I shall again, if you cannot give her up with a good grace.'
'If I could have had my own way in disposing of her.'
'Perhaps the hero of your own composition might be less satisfactory to her than is Kendal.'
'At least he should be minus the children!'
'I fancy the children are one great attraction. Do you know how many there are?'
'Three; but if Albinia knows their ages she involves them in a discreet haze. I imagine some are in their teens.'
'Impossible, Winifred, he is hardly five-and-thirty.'
'Thirty-eight, he said yesterday, and he married very early. I asked Albinia if her son would be in tail-coats; but she thought I was laughing at her, and would not say. She is quite eager at the notion of being governess to the girls.'
'She has wanted scope for her energies,' said Mr. Ferrars. 'Even spoiling her nephew, and being my curate, have not afforded field enough for her spirit of usefulness.'
'That is what I am afraid of.'
'Of what, Winifred?'
'That it is my fault. Before our marriage, you and she were the whole world to each other; but since I came, I have seen, as you say, that the craving for work was strong, and I fear it actuates her more than she knows.'
'No such thing. It is a case of good hearty love. What, are you afraid of that, too?'
'Yes, I am. I grudge her giving her fresh whole young heart away to a man who has no return to make. His heart is in his first wife's grave. Yes, you may smile, Maurice, as if I were talking romance; but only look at him, poor man! Did you ever see any one so utterly broken down? She can hardly beguile a smile from him.'
'His melancholy is one of his charms in her eyes.'
'So it may be, as a sort of interesting romance. I am sure I pity the poor man heartily, but to see her at three-and-twenty, with her sweet face and high spirits, give herself away to a man who looks but half alive, and cannot, if he would, return that full first love—have the charge of a tribe of children, be spied and commented on by the first wife's relations—Maurice, I cannot bear it.'
'It is not what we should have chosen,' said her husband, 'but it has a bright side. Kendal is a most right-minded, superior man, and she appreciates him thoroughly. She has great energy and cheerfulness, and if she can comfort him, and rouse him into activity, and be the kind mother she will be to his poor children, I do not think we ought to grudge her from our own home.'
'You and she have so strong a feeling for motherless children!'
'Thinking of Kendal as I do, I have but one fear for her.'
'I have many—the chief being the grandmother.'
'Mine will make you angry, but it is my only one. You, who have only known her since she has subdued it, have probably never guessed that she has that sort of quick sensitive temper—'
'Maurice, Maurice! as if I had not been a most provoking, presuming sister-in-law. As if I had not acted so that if Albinia ever had a temper, she must have shown it.'
'I knew you would not believe me, and I really am not afraid of her doing any harm by it, if that is what you suspect me of. No, indeed; but I fear it may make her feel any trials of her position more acutely than a placid person would.'
'Oho! so you own there will be trials!'
'My dear Winifred, as if I had not sat up till twelve last night laying them before Albinia. How sick the poor child must be of our arguments, when there is no real objection, and she is so much attached! Have you heard anything about these connexions of his? Did you not write to Mrs. Nugent? I wish she were at home.'
'I had her answer by this afternoon's post, but there is nothing to tell. Mr. Kendal has only been settled at Bayford Bridge a few years, and she never visited any one there, though Mr. Nugent had met Mr. Kendal several times before his wife's death, and liked him. Emily is charmed to have Albinia for a neighbour.'
'Does she know nothing of the Meadows' family?'
'Nothing but that old Mrs. Meadows lives in the town with one unmarried daughter. She speaks highly of the clergyman.'
'John Dusautoy? Ay, he is admirable—not that I have done more than see him at visitations when he was curate at Lauriston.'
'Is he married?'
'I fancy he is, but I am not sure. There is one good friend for Albinia any way!'
'And now for your investigations. Did you see Colonel Bury?'
'I did, but he could say little more than we knew. He says nothing could be more exemplary than Kendal's whole conduct in India, he only regretted that he kept so much aloof from others, that his principle and gentlemanly feeling did not tell as much as could have been wished. He has always been wrapped up in his own pursuits—a perfect dictionary of information.'
'We had found out that, though he is so silent. I should think him a most elegant scholar.'
'And a deep one. He has studied and polished his acquirements to the utmost. I assure you, Winifred, I mean to be proud of my brother-in-law.'
'What did you hear of the first wife?'
'It was an early marriage. He went home as soon as he had sufficient salary, married her, and brought her out. She was a brilliant dark beauty, who became quickly a motherly, housewifely, common-place person—I should think there had been a poet's love, never awakened from.'
'The very thing that has always struck me when, poor man, he has tried to be civil to me. Here is a man, sensible himself, but who has never had the hap to live with sensible women.'
'When their children grew too old for India, she came into some little property at Bayford Bridge, which enabled him to retire. Colonel Bury came home in the same ship, and saw much of them, liked him better and better, and seems to have been rather wearied by her. A very good woman, he says, and Kendal most fondly attached; but as to comparing her with Miss Ferrars, he could not think of it for a moment. So they settled at Bayford, and there, about two years ago, came this terrible visitation of typhus fever.'
'I remember how Colonel Bury used to come and sigh over his friend's illness and trouble.'
'He could not help going over it again. The children all fell ill together—the two eldest were twin boys, one puny, the other a very fine fellow, and his father's especial pride and delight. As so often happens, the sickly one was spared, the healthy one was taken.'
'Then Albinia will have an invalid on her hands!'
'The Colonel says this Edmund was a particularly promising boy, and poor Kendal felt the loss dreadfully. He sickened after that, and his wife was worn out with nursing and grief, and sank under the fever at once. Poor Kendal has never held up his head since; he had a terrible relapse.'
'And,' said Winifred, 'he no sooner recovers than he goes and marries our Albinia!'
'Two years, my dear.'
'Pray explain to me, Maurice, why, when people become widowed in any unusually lamentable way, they always are the first to marry again.'
'Incorrigible. I meant to make you pity him.'
'I did, till I found I had wasted my pity. Why could not these Meadowses look after his children! Why must the Colonel bring him here? I believe it was with malice prepense!'
'The Colonel went to see after him, and found him so drooping and wretched, that he insisted on bringing him home with him, and old Mrs. Meadows and her daughter almost forced him to accept the invitation.'
'They little guessed what the Colonel would be at!'
'You will be better now you have the Colonel to abuse,' said her husband.
'And pray what do you mean to say to the General?'
'Exactly what I think.'
'And to the aunts?' slyly asked the wife.
'I think I shall leave you all that correspondence. It will be too edifying to see you making common cause with the aunts.'
'That comes of trying to threaten one's husband; and here they come,' said Winifred. 'Well, Maurice, what can't be cured must be endured. Albinia'a heart is gone, he is a very good man, and spite of India, first wife, and melancholy, he does not look amiss!'
Mr. Ferrars smiled at the chary, grudging commendation of the tall, handsome man who advanced through the beech-wood, but it was too true that his clear olive complexion had not the line of health, that there was a world of oppression on his broad brow and deep hazel eyes, and that it was a dim, dreamy, reluctant smile that was awakened by the voice of the lady who walked by his side, as if reverencing his grave mood.
She was rather tall, very graceful, and well made, but her features were less handsome than sweet, bright, and sensible. Her hair was nut-brown, in long curled waves; her eyes, deep soft grey, and though downcast under the new sympathies, new feelings, and responsibilities that crowded on her, the smile and sparkle that lighted them as she blushed and nodded to her brother and sister, showed that liveliness was the natural expression of that engaging face.
Say what they would, it was evident that Albinia Ferrars had cast in her lot with Edmund Kendal, and that her energetic spirit and love of children animated her to embrace joyfully the cares which such a choice must impose on her.
As might have been perceived by one glance at the figure, step, and bearing of Mr. Ferrars, perfectly clerical though they were, he belonged to a military family. His father had been a distinguished Peninsular officer, and his brother, older by many years, held a command in Canada. Maurice and Albinia, early left orphans, had, with a young cousin, been chiefly under the charge of their aunts, Mrs. Annesley and Miss Ferrars, and had found a kind home in their house in Mayfair, until Maurice had been ordained to the family living of Fairmead, and his sister had gone to live with him there, extorting the consent of her elder brother to her spending a more real and active life than her aunts' round of society could offer her.
The aunts lamented, but they could seldom win their darling to them for more than a few weeks at a time, even after their nephew Maurice had—as they considered—thrown himself away on a little lively lady of Irish parentage, no equal in birth or fortune, in their opinion, for the grandson of Lord Belraven.
They had been very friendly to the young wife, but their hopes had all the more been fixed on Albinia; and even Winifred could afford them some generous pity in the engagement of their favourite niece to a retired East India Company's servant—a widower with three children.
The equinoctial sun had long set, and the blue haze of March east wind had deepened into twilight and darkness when Albinia Kendal found herself driving down the steep hilly street of Bayford. The town was not large nor modern enough for gas, and the dark street was only lighted here and there by a shop of more pretension; the plate-glass of the enterprising draper, with the light veiled by shawls and ribbons, the 'purple jars,' green, ruby, and crimson of the chemist; and the modest ray of the grocer, revealing busy heads driving Saturday-night bargains.
'How well I soon shall know them all,' said Albinia, looking at her husband, though she knew she could not see his face, as he leant back silently in his corner, and she tried to say no more. She was sure that coming home was painful to him; he had been so willing to put it off, and to prolong those pleasant seaside days, when there had been such pleasant reading, walking, musing, and a great deal of happy silence.
Down the hill, and a little way on level ground—houses on one side, something like hedge or shrubbery on the other—a stop—a gate opened—a hollow sound beneath the carriage, as though crossing a wooden bridge—trees—bright windows—an open door—and light streaming from it.
'Here is your home, Albinia,' said that deep musical voice that she loved the better for the subdued melancholy of the tones, and the suppressed sigh that could not be hidden.
'And my children,' she eagerly said, as he handed her out, and, springing to the ground, she hurried to the open door opposite, where, in the lamp-light, she saw, moving about in shy curiosity and embarrassment, two girls in white frocks and broad scarlet sashes, and a boy, who, as she advanced, retreated with his younger sister to the fireplace, while the elder one, a pretty, and rather formal looking girl of twelve, stood forward.
Albinia held out her arms, saying, 'You are Lucy, I am sure,' and eagerly kissed the girl's smiling, bright face.
'Yes, I am Lucy,' was the well-pleased answer, 'I am glad you are come.'
'I hope we shall be very good friends,' said Albinia, with the sweet smile that few, young or old, could resist. 'And this is Gilbert,' as she kissed the blushing cheek of a thin boy of thirteen—'and Sophia.'
Sophia, who was eleven, had not stirred to meet her. She alone inherited her father's fine straight profile, and large black eyes, but she had the heaviness of feature that sometimes goes with very dark complexions. The white frock did not become her brown neck and arms, her thick black hair was arranged in too womanly a manner, and her head and face looked too large; moreover, there was no lighting-up to answer the greeting, and Albinia was disappointed.
Poor child, she thought, she is feeling deeply that I am an interloper, it will be different now her father is coming.
Mr. Kendal was crossing the hall, and as he entered he took the hand and kissed the forehead of each of the three, but Sophia stood with the same half sullen indifference—it might be shyness, or sensibility.
'How much you are grown!' he said, looking at the children with some surprise.
In fact, though Albinia knew their ages, they were all on a larger scale than she had expected, and looked too old for the children of a man of his youthful appearance. Gilbert had the slight look of rapid growth; Lucy, though not so tall, and with a small, clear, bright face, had the air of a little woman, and Sophia's face might have befitted any age.
'Yes, papa,' said Lucy; 'Gilbert has grown an inch-and-a-half since October, for we measured him.'
'Have you been well, Gilbert?' continued Mr. Kendal, anxiously.
'I have the toothache, said Gilbert, piteously.
'Happily, nothing more serious,' thrust in Lucy; 'Mr. Bowles told Aunt Maria that he considers Gilbert's health much improved.'
Albinia asked some kind questions about the delinquent tooth, but the answers were short; and, to put an end to the general constraint, she asked Lucy to show her to her room.
It was a pretty bay-windowed room, and looked cheerful in the firelight. Lucy's tongue was at once unloosed, telling that Gilbert's tutor, Mr. Salsted, had insisted on his having his tooth extracted, and that he had refused, saying it was quite well; but Lucy gave it as her opinion that he much preferred the toothache to his lessons.
'Where does Mr. Salsted live?'
'At Tremblam, about two miles off; Gilbert rides the pony over there every day, except when he has the toothache, and then he stays at home.'
'And what do you do?'
'We went to Miss Belmarche till the end of our quarter, and since that we have been at home, or with grandmamma. Do you really mean that we are to study with you?'
'I should like it, my dear. I have been looking forward very much to teaching you and Sophia.'
'Thank you, mamma.'
The word was said with an effort as if it came strangely, but it thrilled Albinia's heart, and she kissed Lucy, who clung to her, and returned the caress.
'I shall tell Gilbert and Sophy what a dear mamma you are,' she said. 'Do you know, Sophy says she shall never call you anything but Mrs. Kendal; and I know Gilbert means the same.'
'Let them call me whatever suits them best,' said Albinia; 'I had rather they waited till they feel that they like to call me as you have done—thank you for it, dear Lucy. You must not fancy I shall be at all hurt at your thinking of times past. I shall want you to tell me of them, and of your own dear mother, and what will suit papa best.'
Lucy looked highly gratified, and eagerly said, 'I am sure I shall love you just like my own mamma.'
'No,' said Albinia, kindly; 'I do not expect that, my dear. I don't ask for any more than you can freely give, dear child. You must bear with having me in that place, and we will try and help each other to make your papa comfortable; and, Lucy, you will forgive me, if I am impetuous, and make mistakes.'
Lucy's little clear black eyes looked as if nothing like this had ever come within her range of observation, and Albinia could sympathize with her difficulty of reply.
Mr. Kendal was not in the drawing-room when they re-entered, there was only Gilbert nursing his toothache by the fire, and Sophy sitting in the middle of the rug, holding up a screen. She said something good-natured to each, but neither responded graciously, and Lucy went on talking, showing off the room, the chiffonieres, the ornaments, and some pretty Indian ivory carvings. There was a great ottoman of Aunt Maria's work, and a huge cushion with an Arab horseman, that Lucy would uncover, whispering, 'Poor mamma worked it,' while Sophy visibly winced, and Albinia hurried it into the chintz cover again, lest Mr. Kendal should come. But Lucy had full time to be communicative about the household with such a satisfied, capable manner, that Albinia asked if she had been keeping house all this time.
'No; old Nurse kept the keys, and managed till now; but she went this morning.'
Sophy's mouth twitched.
'She was so very fond—' continued Lucy.
'Don't!' burst out Sophy, almost the first word Albinia had heard from her; but no more passed, for Mr. Kendal came in, and Lucy's conversation instantly was at an end.'
Before him she was almost as silent as the others, and he seldom addressed himself to her, only inquiring once after her grandmamma's health, and once calling Sophy out of the way when she was standing between the fire and—He finished with the gesture of command, whether he said 'Your mamma,' none could tell.
It was late, and the meal was not over before bed-time, when Albinia lingered to find remedies for Gilbert's toothache, pleased to feel herself making a commencement of motherly care, and to meet an affectionate glance of thanks from Mr. Kendal's eye. Gilbert, too, thanked her with less shyness than before, and was hopeful about the remedy; and with the feeling of having made a beginning, she ran down to tell Mr. Kendal that she thought he had hardly done justice to the children—they were fine creatures—something so sweet and winning about Lucy—she liked Gilbert's countenance—Sophy must have something deep and noble in her.
He lifted his head to look at her bright face, and said, 'They are very much obliged to you.'
'You must not say that, they are my own.'
'I will not say it again, but as I look at you, and the home to which I have brought you, I feel that I have acted selfishly.'
Albinia timidly pressed his hand, 'Work was always what I wished,' she said, 'if only I could do anything to lighten your grief and care.'
He gave a deep, heavy sigh. Albinia felt that if he had hoped to have lessened the sadness, he had surely found it again at his own door. He roused himself, however, to say, 'This is using you ill, Albinia; no one is more sensible of it than I am.'
'I never sought more than you can give,' she murmured; 'I only wish to do what I can for you, and you will not let me disturb you.'
'I am very grateful to you,' was his answer; a sad welcome for a bride. 'And these poor children will owe everything to you.'
'I wish I may do right by them,' said Albinia, fervently.
'The flower of the flock'—began Mr. Kendal, but he broke off at once.
Albinia had told Winifred that she could bear to have his wife's memory first with him, and that she knew that she could not compensate to him for his loss, but the actual sight of his dejection came on her with a chill, and she had to call up all her energies and hopes, and, still better, the thought of strength not her own, to enable her to look cheerfully on the prospect. Sleep revived her elastic spirits, and with eager curiosity she drew up her blind in the morning, for the first view of her new home.
But there was a veil—moisture made the panes resemble ground glass, and when she had rubbed that away, and secured a clear corner, her range of vision was not much more extensive. She could only see the grey outline of trees and shrubs, obscured by the heavy mist; and on the lawn below, a thick cloud that seemed to hang over a dark space which she suspected to be a large pond.
'There is very little to be gained by looking out here!' Albinia soliloquized. 'It is not doing the place justice to study it on a misty, moisty morning. It looks now as if that fever might have come bodily out of the pond. I'll have no more to say to it till the sun has licked up the fog, and made it bright! Sunday morning—my last Sunday without school-teaching I hope! I famish to begin again—and I will make time for that, and the girls too! I am glad he consents to my doing whatever I please in that way! I hope Mr. Dusautoy will! I wish Edmund knew him better—but oh! what a shy man it is!'
With a light step she went down-stairs, and found Mr Kendal waiting for her in the dining-room, his face brightening as she entered.
'I am sorry Bayford should wear this heavy cloud to receive you,' he said.
'It will soon clear,' she answered, cheerfully. 'Have you heard of poor Gilbert this morning?'
'Not yet.' Then, after a pause, 'I have generally gone to Mrs. Meadows after the morning service,' he said, speaking with constraint.
'You will take me?' said Albinia. 'I wish it, I assure you.'
It was evidently what he wished her to propose, and he added, 'She must never feel herself neglected, and it will be better at once.'
'So much more cordial,' said Albinia. 'Pray let us go!'
They were interrupted by the voices of the girls—not unpleasing voices, but loud and unsubdued, and with a slight tone of provincialism, which seemed to hurt Mr. Kendal's ears, for he said, 'I hope you will tune those voices to something less unlike your own.'
As he spoke, the sisters appeared in the full and conscious rustling of new lilac silk dresses, which seemed to have happily carried off all Sophy's sullenness, for she made much more brisk and civil answers, and ran across the room in a boisterous manner, when her father sent her to see whether Gilbert were up.
There was a great clatter, and Gilbert chased her in, breathless and scolding, but the tongues were hushed before papa, and no more was heard than that the tooth was better, and had not kept him awake. Lucy seemed disposed to make conversation, overwhelming Albinia with needless repetitions of 'Mamma dear,' and plunging into what Mrs. Bowles and Miss Goldsmith had said of Mr. Dusautoy, and how he kept so few servants, and the butcher had no orders last time he called. Aunt Maria thought he starved and tyrannized over that poor little sickly Mrs. Dusautoy.
Mr. Kendal said not one word, and seemed not to hear. Albinia felt as if she had fallen into a whirlpool of gossip; she looked towards him, and hoped to let the conversation drop, but Sophy answered her sister, and, at last, when it came to something about what Jane heard from Mrs. Osborn's Susan, Albinia gently whispered, 'I do not think this entertains your papa, my dear,' and silence sank upon them all.
Albinia's next venture was to ask about that which had been her Sunday pleasure from childhood, and she turned to Sophy, and said, 'I suppose you have not begun to teach at the school yet!'
Sophy's great eyes expanded, and Lucy said, 'Oh dear mamma! nobody does that but Genevieve Durant and the monitors. Miss Wolte did till Mr. Dusautoy came, but she does not approve of him.'
'Lucy, you do not know what you are saying,' said Mr. Kendal, and again there was an annihilating silence, which Albinia did not attempt to disturb.
At church time, she met the young ladies in the hall, in pink bonnets and sea-green mantillas over the lilac silks, all evidently put on for the first time in her honour, an honour of which she felt herself the less deserving, as, sensible that this was no case for bridal display, she wore a quiet dark silk, a Cashmere shawl, and plain straw bonnet, trimmed with white.
With manifest wish for reciprocity, Lucy fell into transports over the shawl, but gaining nothing by this, Sophy asked if she did not like the mantillas? Albinia could only make civility compatible with truth by saying that the colour was pretty, but where was Gilbert? He was on a stool before the dining-room fire, looking piteous, and pronouncing his tooth far too bad for going to church, and she had just time for a fresh administration of camphor before Mr. Kendal came forth from his study, and gave her his arm.
The front door opened on a narrow sweep, the river cutting it off from the road, and crossed by two wooden bridges, beside each of which stood a weeping-willow, budding with fresh spring foliage. Opposite were houses of various pretentious, and sheer behind them rose the steep hill, with the church nearly at the summit, the noble spire tapering high above, and the bells ringing out a cheerful chime. The mist had drawn up, and all was fresh and clear.
'There go Lizzie and Loo!' cried Lucy, 'and the Admiral and Mrs. Osborn. I'll run and tell them papa is come home.'
Sophy was setting off also, but Mr. Kendal stopped them, and lingered a moment or two, making an excuse of looking for a needless umbrella, but in fact to avoid the general gaze. As if making a desperate plunge, however, and looking up and down the broad street, so as to be secure that no acquaintance was near, he emerged with Albinia from the gate, and crossed the road as the chime of the bells changed.
'We are late,' he said. 'You will prefer the speediest way, though it is somewhat steep.'
The most private way, Albinia understood, and could also perceive that the girls would have liked the street which sloped up the hill, and thought the lilac and green insulted by being conducted up the steep, irregular, and not very clean bye-lane that led directly up the ascent, between houses, some meanly modern, some picturesquely ancient, with stone steps outside to the upper story, but all with far too much of pig-stye about them for beauty or fragrance. Lucy held up her skirts, and daintily picked her way, and Albinia looked with kindly eyes at the doors and windows, secretly wondering what friends she should find there.
The lane ended in a long flight of more than a hundred shallow steps cut out in the soft stone of the hill, with landing-places here and there, whence views were seen of the rich meadow-landscape beyond, with villages, orchards, and farms, and the blue winding river Baye in the midst, woods rising on the opposite side under the soft haze of distance. On the other side, the wall of rock was bordered by gardens, with streamers of ivy or periwinkle here and there hanging down.
The ascent ended in an old-fashioned stone stile; and here Sophy, standing on the step, proclaimed, with unnecessary loudness, that Mr. Dusautoy was carrying Mrs. Dusautoy across the churchyard. This had the effect of making a pause, but Albinia saw the rector, a tall, powerful man, rather supporting than actually carrying, a little fragile form to the low-browed door leading into the chancel on the north side. The church was handsome, though in the late style, and a good deal misused by eighteenth-century taste; and Albinia was full of admiration as Mr. Kendal conducted her along the flagged path.
She was rather dismayed to find herself mounting the gallery stairs, and to emerge into a well-cushioned abode, with the shield-bearing angel of the corbel of an arch all to herself, and a very good view of the cobwebs over Mr. Dusautoy's sounding-board. It seemed to suit all parties, however, for Lucy and Sophia took possession of the forefront, and their father had the inmost corner, where certainly nobody could see him.
Just opposite to Albinia was a mural tablet, on which she read what revealed to her more of the sorrows of her household than she had guessed before:
'To the memory of Lucy, the beloved wife of Edmund Kendal. Died February 18th, 1845, aged 35 years.
Edmund Meadows Kendal, born January 20th, 1834. Died February 10th, 1845.
Maria Kendal, born September 5th, 1840. Died September 14th, 1840.
Sarah Anne Kendal, born October 3rd, 1841. Died November 20th, 1843.
John Augustus Kendal, born January 4th, 1842. Died July 6th, 1842.
Anne Maria Kendal, born June 12th, 1844. Died June 19th, 1844.'
Then followed, in the original Greek, the words, 'Because I live, ye shall live also.'
Four infants! how many hopes laid here! All the English-born children of the family had died in their cradles, and not only did compassion for the past affect Albinia, as she thought of her husband's world of hidden grief, but a shudder for the future came over her, as she remembered having read that such mortality is a test of the healthiness of a locality. What could she think of Willow Lawn? It was with a strong effort that she brought her attention back to Him Who controlleth the sickness that destroyeth at noon-day.
But Mr. Dusautoy's deep, powerful intonations roused her wandering thoughts, and she was calmed and reassured by the holy Feast, in which she joined with her husband.
Mr. Kendal's fine face was calm and placid, as best she loved to look upon it, when they came out of church, and she was too happy to disturb the quiet by one word. Lively and animated as she was, there was a sort of repose and enjoyment in the species of respect exacted by his grave silent demeanour.
If this could only have lasted longer! but he was taking her along an irregular street, and too soon she saw a slight colour flit across his cheek, and his eyebrows contract, as he unlatched a green door in a high wall, and entered a little flagged court, decorated by a stand destined for flowers.
Albinia caught the blush, and felt more bashful than she had believed was in her nature, but she had a warm-hearted determination that she would work down prejudices, and like and be liked by all that concerned him and his children. So she smiled at him, and went bravely on into the matted hall and up the narrow stairs, and made a laughing sign when he looked back at her ere he tapped at the sitting-room door.
It was opened from within before he could turn the handle, and a shrill voice, exaggerating those of the girls, showered welcomes with such rapidity, that Albinia was seated at the table, and had been helped to cold chicken, before she could look round, or make much answer to reiterations of 'so very kind.'
It was a small room, loaded with knicknacks and cushions, like a repository of every species of female ornamental handiwork in vogue for the last half century, and the luncheon-tray in the middle of all, ready for six people, for the two girls were there, and though Mr. Kendal stood up by the fire, and would not eat, he and his black image, reflected backwards and forwards in the looking-glass and in the little round mirror, seemed to take up more room than if he had been seated.
Mrs. Meadows was slight, shrunken, and gentle-looking, with a sweet tone in her voice, great softness of manner, and pretty blue eyes. Albinia only wished that she had worn mourning, it would have been so much more becoming than bright colours, but that was soon overlooked in gratitude for her affectionate reception, and in the warmth of feeling excited by her evident fondness and solicitude for Mr. Kendal.
Miss Meadows was gaily dressed in youthful fashion, such as evidently had set her off to advantage when she had been a bright, dark, handsome girl; but her hair was thin, her cheeks haggard, the colour hardened, and her forty years apparent, above all, in an uncomfortable furrow on the brow and round the mouth; her voice had a sharp distressed tone that grated even in her lowest key, and though she did not stammer, she could never finish a sentence, but made half-a-dozen disjointed commencements whenever she spoke. Albinia pitied her, and thought her nervous, for she was painfully assiduous in waiting on every one, scarcely sitting down for a minute before she was sure that pepper, or pickle, or new bread, or stale bread, or something was wanted, and squeezing round the table to help some one, or to ring the bell every third minute, and all in a dress that had a teasing stiff silken rustle. She offered Mr. Kendal everything in the shape of food, till he purchased peace by submitting to take a hard biscuit, while Albinia was not allowed her glass of water till all manner of wines, foreign and domestic, had been tried upon her in vain.
Conversation was not easy. Gilbert was inquired after, and his aunt spoke in her shrill, injured note, as she declared that she had done her utmost to persuade him to have the tooth extracted, and began a history of what the dentist ought to have done five years ago.
His grandmother softly pitied him, saying poor little Gibbie was such a delicate boy, and required such careful treatment; and when Albinia hoped that he was outgrowing his ill-health, she was amused to find that desponding compassion would have been more pleasing.
There had been a transaction about a servant in her behalf: and Miss Meadows insisted on hunting up a note, searching all about the room, and making her mother and Sophy move from the front of two table-drawers, a disturbance which Sophy did not take with such placid looks as did her grandmother.
The name of the maid was Eweretta Dobson, at which there was a general exclamation.
'I wonder what is the history of the name,' said Albinia; 'it sounds like nothing but the diminutive of ewer. I hope she will not be the little pitcher with long ears.'
Mr. Kendal looked as much amused as he ever did, but no one else gave the least token of so much as knowing what she meant, and she felt as if she had been making a foolish attempt at wit.
'You need not call her so,' was all that Mrs. Meadows said.
'I do not like calling servants by anything but their true names,' answered Albinia; 'it does not seem to me treating them with proper respect to change their names, as if we thought them too good for them. It is using them like slaves.
Lucy exclaimed, 'Why! grandmamma's Betty is really named Philadelphia.'
Albinia laughed, but was disconcerted by finding that she had really given annoyance. 'I beg your pardon,' she said. 'It is only a fancy of my own. I am afraid that I have many fancies for my friends to bear with. You see I have so fine a name of my own, that I have a fellow-feeling for those under the same affliction; and I believe some servants like an alias rather than be teased for their finery, so I shall give Miss Eweretta her choice between that and her surname.
The old lady looked good-natured, and that matter blew over; but Miss Meadows fell into another complication of pros and cons about writing for the woman's character, looking miserably harassed whether she should write, or Mrs. Kendal, before she had been called upon.
Albinia supposed that Mrs. Wolfe might call in the course of the week; but this Miss Meadows did not know, and she embarked in so many half speeches, and looked so mysterious and significant at her mother, that Albinia began to suspect that some dreadful truth was behind.
'Perhaps,' said the old lady, 'perhaps Mrs. Kendal might make it understood through you, my dear Maria, that she is ready to receive visits.'
'I suppose they must be!' said Albinia.
'You see, my dear, people would be most happy, but they do not know whether you have arrived. You have not appeared at church, as I may say.'
'Indeed,' said Albinia, much diverted by her new discoveries in the realms of etiquette, 'I was rather in a cupboard, I must allow. Ought we to have sailed up the aisle in state in the Grandison pattern? Are you ready?' and she glanced up at her husband, but he only half heard.
'No,' said Miss Meadows, fretfully; 'but you have not appeared as a bride. The straw bonnet—you see people cannot tell whether you are not incog, as yet—'
To refrain from laughing was impossible. 'My tarn cap,' she exclaimed; 'I am invisible in it! What shall I do? I fear I shall never be producible, for indeed it is my very best, my veritable wedding-bonnet!'
Lucy looked as if she thought it not worth while to be married for no better a bonnet than that.
'Absurdity!' said Mr. Kendal.
If he would but have given a good hearty laugh, thought Albinia, what a consolation it would be! but she considered herself to have had a lesson against laughing in that house, and was very glad when he proposed going home. He took a kind, affectionate leave of the old lady, who again looked fondly in big face, and rejoiced in his having recovered his looks.
As they arrived at home, Lucy announced that she was just going to speak to Lizzie Osborn, and Sophy ran after her to a house of about the same degree as their own, but dignified as Mount Lodge, because it stood on the hill side of the street, while Mr. Kendal's house was for more gentility called 'Willow Lawn.' Gilbert was not to be found; but at four o'clock the whole party met at dinner, before the evening service.
Gilbert could eat little, and on going back to the fire to roast his cheek instead of going to church, was told by his father, 'I cannot have this going on. You must go to Mr. Bowles directly after breakfast to-morrow, have the tooth drawn, and then go on to Mr. Salsted's.
The tone was one that admitted of no rebellion. If Mr. Kendal interfered little, his authority was absolute where he did interfere, and Albinia could only speak a few kind words of encouragement, but the boy was vexed and moody, seemed half asleep when they came home, and went to bed as soon as tea was over.
Sophy went to bed too, Mr. Kendal went to his study, and Albinia, after this day of novelty and excitement, drew her chair to the fire, and as Lucy was hanging wearily about, called her to her side, and made her talk, believing that there was more use in studying the girl's character than even in suggesting some occupation, though that was apparently the great want of the whole family on Sunday.
Lucy's first confidence was that Gilbert had not been out alone, but with that Archibald Tritton. Mr. Tritton had a great farm, and was a sort of gentleman, and Gilbert was always after that Archy. She thought it 'very undesirable,' and Aunt Maria had talked to him about it, but he never listened to Aunt Maria.
Albinia privately thought that it must be a severe penance to listen to Aunt Maria, and took Gilbert's part. She supposed that he must be very solitary; it must be a melancholy thing to be a twin left alone.
'And Edmund, dear Edmund, was always so kind and so fond of Gilbert!' said Lucy. 'You would not have thought they were twins, Edmund was so much the tallest and strongest. It seemed so odd that Gilbert should have got over it, when he did not. Should you like to hear all about it, mamma?'
It was Albinia's great wish to lift that dark veil, and Lucy began, with as much seriousness and sadness as could co-exist with the satisfaction and importance of having to give such a narration, and exciting emotion and pity. It was remarkable how she managed to make herself the heroine of the story, though she had been sent out of the house, and had escaped the infection. She spoke in phrases that showed that she had so often told the story as to have a set form, caught from her elders, but still it had a deep and intrinsic interest for the bride, that made her sit gazing into the fire, pressing Lucy's hand, and now and then sighing and shuddering slightly as she heard how there had been a bad fever prevailing in that lower part of the town, and how the two boys were both unwell one damp, hot autumn morning, and Lucy dwelt on the escape it had been that she had not kissed them before going to school. Sophy had sickened the same day, and after the tedious three weeks, when father and mother were spent with attendance on the three, Edmund, after long delirium, had suddenly sunk, just as they had hopes of him; and the same message that told Lucy of her brother's death, told her of the severe illness of both parents.
The disease had done the work rapidly on the mother's exhausted frame, and she was buried a week after her boy. Lucy had seen the procession from the window, and thought it necessary to tell how she had cried.
Mr. Kendal's had been a long illness; the first knowledge of his loss had caused a relapse, and his recovery had long been doubtful. As soon as the children were able to move, they were sent with Miss Meadows to Ramsgate, and Lucy had joined them there.
'The day before I went, I saw papa,' she said. 'I had gone home for some things that I was to take, and his room door was open, so he saw me on the stairs, and called me, for there was no fear of infection then. Oh, he was so changed! his hair all cut off, and his cheeks hollow, and he was quite trembling, as he lay back on pillows in the great arm-chair. You can't think what a shock it was to me to see him in such a state. He held out his arms, and I flung mine round his neck, and sobbed and cried. And he just said, so faintly, "Take her away, Maria, I cannot bear it." I assure you I was quite hysterical.'
'You must have wished for more self-command,' said Albinia, disturbed by Lucy's evident pleasure in having made a scene.
'Oh, but it was such a shock, and such a thing to see the house all empty and forlorn, with the windows open, and everything so still! Miss Belmarche cried too, and said she did not wonder my feelings overcame me, and she did not see papa.'
'Ah! Lucy,' said Albinia, fervently, 'how we must try to make him happy after all that he has gone through!'
'That is what grandmamma said when she got his letter. "I would be glad of anything," she said, "that would bring back a smile to him." And Aunt Maria said she had done her best for him, but he must consult his own happiness; and so I say. When people talk to me, I say that papa is quite at liberty to consult his own happiness.'
Lucy did not understand the tone, and went on patronizing. 'And if they say you look younger than they expected, I don't object to that at all. I had rather you were not as old as Aunt Maria, or Miss Belmarche.'
'Who thinks me so young?'
'Oh! Aunt Maria, and grandmamma, and Mrs. Osborn, and all; but I don't mind that, it is only Sophy who says you look like a girl. Aunt Maria says Sophy has an unmanageable temper.'
'Don't you think you can let me find that out for myself?'
'I thought you wanted me to tell you about everybody.'
'Ah! but tell me of the good in your brother and sister.'
'I don't know how,' said Lucy. 'Gilbert is so tiresome, and so is Sophy. I heard Mary telling Jane, "I'm sure the new missus will have a heavy handful of those two."'
'And what of yourself?' said Albinia.
'Oh! I don't know,' said Lucy, modestly.
Mr. Kendal came in, and as Albinia looked at his pensive brow, she was oppressed by the thought of his sufferings in that dreary convalescence. At night, when she looked from her window, the fog hung white, like mildew over the pond, and she could not reason herself out of a spectral haunting fancy that sickness lurked in the heavy, misty atmosphere. She dreamt of it and the four babies, started, awoke, and had to recall all her higher trust to enable her vigour to chase off the oppressive imagination.
Fog greeted Mrs. Kendal's eyes as she rose, and she resolved to make an attack on the pond without loss of time. But Mr. Kendal was absorbed nearly all breakfast-time in a letter from India, containing a scrap in some uncouth character. As he finished his last cup of tea, he looked up and said, 'A letter from my old friend Penrose, of Bombay—an inscription in the Salsette caves.'
'Have you seen the Salsette caves?
She was longing to hear about them, but his horse was announced.
'You said you would be engaged in the morning while I ride out, Albinia?' he said, 'I shall return before luncheon. Gilbert, you had better go at once to Mr. Bowles. I shall order your pony to be ready when you come back.'
There was not a word of remonstrance, though the boy looked very disconsolate, and began to murmur the moment his father had gone. Albinia, who had regarded protection at a dentist's one of the offices of the head of a family, though dismayed at the task, told Gilbert that she would come with him in a moment. The girls exclaimed that no one thought of going with him, and fearing she had put an affront on his manliness, she asked what he would like, but could get no answer, only when Lucy scolded him for lingering, he said, 'I thought she was going with me.'
'Amiable,' thought Albinia, as she ran up to put on her bonnet; 'but I suppose toothache puts people out of the pale of civilization. And if he is thankless, is not that treating me more like a mother?'
Perhaps he had accepted her escort in hopes of deferring the evil hour, for he seemed discomfited to see her so quickly ready, and not grateful to his sisters, who hurried them by saying that Mr. Bowles would be gone out upon his rounds.
Mr. Bowles was amazed at the sight of Mrs. Kendal, and so elaborate in compliments and assurances that Mrs. Bowles would do herself the honour of calling, that Albinia, pitying Gilbert, called his attention back.
With him the apothecary was peremptory and facetious. 'He had expected that he should soon see him after his papa's return!' And with a 'soon be over,' he set him down, and Albinia bravely stood a desperate wringing of her hand at the tug of war. She was glad she had come, for the boy suffered a good deal, and was faint, and Mr. Bowles pronounced his mouth in no state for a ride to Tremblam.
'I must go,' said Gilbert, as they walked home, 'I wish papa would listen to anything.'
'He would not wish you to hurt yourself.'
'When papa says a thing—' began Gilbert.
'Well, Gilbert, you are quite right, and I hope you don't think I mean to teach you disobedience. But I do desire you, on my own responsibility, not to go and catch an inflammation in your jaw. I'll undertake papa.'
Gilbert at once became quite another creature. He discoursed so much, that she had to make him restore the handkerchief to his mouth; he held open the gate, showed her a shoal of minnows, and tried to persuade her to come round the garden before going in, but she clapped her hands at him, and hunted him back into the warm room, much impressed and delighted by his implicit obedience to his father. With Lucy and Sophy, his remaining seemed likewise to make a great sensation; they looked at Mrs. Kendal and whispered, and were evidently curious as to the result of her audacity. Albinia, who had grown up with her brother Maurice and cousin Frederick, was more used to boys than to girls, and was already more at ease with her son than her daughters.
Gilbert lent a ready hand with hammer and chisel, and boxes were opened, to the great delight and admiration of the girls. They were all very happy and busy setting things to rights, but Albinia was in difficulty how to bestow her books. There was an unaccountable scarcity both of books and book-cases; none were to be seen except that, in a chiffoniere in the drawing-room, there was a row in gilded bindings, chiefly Pope, Gray, and the like; and one which Albinia took out had pages which stuck together, a little pale blue string, faded at the end, and in the garlanded fly-leaf the inscription, 'To Miss Lucy Meadows, the reward of good conduct, December 20th, 1822.' The book seemed rather surprised at being opened, and Albinia let it close itself as Lucy said, 'Those are poor mamma's books, all the others are in the study. Come in, and I'll show you.'
She threw open the door, and Albinia entered. The study was shaded with a mass of laurels that kept out the sun, and made it look chill and sad, and the air in it was close. The round library-table was loaded with desks, pocket-books, and papers, the mantelpiece was covered with letters, and book-shelves mounted to the ceiling, filled with the learned and the poetical of new and old times.
Over the fireplace hung what it needed not Lucy's whisper to point out, as 'Poor mamma's picture.' It represented a very pretty girl, with dark eyes, brilliant colour, and small cherry mouth, painted in the exaggerated style usually called 'ridiculously like.'
Albinia's first feeling was that there was nothing in herself that could atone for the loss of so fair a creature, and the thought became more oppressive as she looked at a niche in the wall, holding a carved sandal-wood work-box, with a silver watch lying on it.
'Poor Edmund's watch,' said Lucy. 'It was given to him for a reward just before he was ill.'
Albinia tried to recover composure by reading the titles of the books. Suddenly, Lucy started and exclaimed, 'Come away. There he is!'
'Why come away?' said Albinia.
'I would not have him find me there for all the world.'
In all her vexation and dismay, Albinia could not help thinking of Bluebeard's closet. Her inclination was to stay where she was, and take her chance of losing her head, yet she felt as if she could not bear to be found invading a sanctuary of past recollections, and was relieved to find that it was a false alarm, though not relieved by the announcement that Admiral and Mrs. Osborn and the Miss Osborns were in the drawing-room.
'Before luncheon—too bad!' she exclaimed, as she hurried upstairs to wash off the dust of unpacking.
Ere she could hurry down, there was another inundation streaming across the hall, Mrs. Drury and three Miss Drurys, who, as she remembered, when they began to kiss her, were some kind of cousins.
There was talk, but Albinia could not give entire attention; she was watching for Mr. Kendal's return, that she might guard Gilbert from his displeasure, and the instant she heard him, she sprang up, and flew into the hall. He could not help brightening at the eager welcome, but when she told him of Mr. Bowles' opinion, he looked graver, and said, 'I fear you must not always attach credit to all Gilbert's reports.'
'Mr. Bowles told me himself that he must run no risk of inflammation.'
'You saw Mr. Bowles?'
'I went with Gilbert.'
'You? I never thought of your imposing so unpleasant a task on yourself. I fear the boy has been trespassing on your kindness.'
'No, indeed, he never asked me, but—' with a sort of laugh to hide the warmth excited by his pleased, grateful look, 'I thought it all in the day's work, only natural—'
She would have given anything to have had time to enjoy his epanchement de coeur at those words, bit she was obliged to add, 'Alas! there's all the world in the drawing-room!'
'Osborns and Drurys.'
'Do you want me?'
'I ran away on the plea of calling you.'
'I'll never do so again,' was her inward addition, as his countenance settled into the accustomed fixed look of abstraction, and as an unwilling victim he entered the room with her, and the visitors were 'dreadful enough' to congratulate him.
Albinia knew that it must be so unpleasant to him, that she blushed up to the roots of her hair, and could not look at anybody.
When she recovered, the first comers were taking leave, but the second set stayed on and on till past luncheon-time, and far past her patience, before the room was at last cleared.
Gilbert hurried in, and was received by his father with, 'You are very much obliged to her!'
'Indeed I am,' said Gilbert, in a winning, pleasant manner.
'I don't want you to be,' said Albinia, affectionately laying her arm on his shoulder. 'And now for luncheon—I pitied you, poor fellow; I thought you must have been famished.'
'Anything not to have all the Drurys at luncheon,' said Gilbert, confidentially, 'I had begun to wish myself at Tremblam.'
'By the bye,' said Mr. Kendal, waking as he sat down at the bottom of the table, 'how was it that the Drurys did not stay to luncheon?'
'Was that what they were waiting for?' exclaimed Albinia. 'Poor people, I had no notion of that.'
'They do have luncheon here in general,' said Mr. Kendal, as if not knowing exactly how it came to pass.
'O yes,' said Lucy; 'Sarah Anne asked me whether we ate wedding-cake every day.'
'Poor Miss Sarah Anne!' said Albinia, laughing. 'But one cannot help feeling inhospitable when people come so unconscionably early, and cut up all one's morning.'
The door was again besieged by visitors, just as they were all going out to make the round of the garden, and it was not till half-past four that the succession ceased, and Albinia was left to breathe freely, and remember how often Maurice had called her to order for intolerance of morning calls.
'And not the only people I cared to see,' she said, 'the Dusautoys and Nugents. But they have too much mercy to call the first day.'
Mr. Kendal looked as if his instinct were drawing him study-wards, but Albinia hung on his arm, and made him come into the garden. Though devoid of Winifred's gardening tastes, she was dismayed at the untended look of the flower-beds. The laurels were too high, and seemed to choke the narrow space, and the turf owed its verdant appearance to damp moss. She had made but few steps before the water squished under her feet, and impelled her to exclaim, 'What a pity this pond should not be filled up!'
'Yes, it would be so much less damp. One might drain it off into the river, and then we should get rid of the fog.'
And she began actively to demonstrate the convenient slope, and the beautiful flower-bed that might be made in its place. Mr. Kendal answered with a few assenting sounds and complacent looks, and Albinia, accustomed to a brother with whom to assent was to act, believed the matter was in train, and that pond and fever would be annihilated.
The garden opened into a meadow with a causeway leading to a canal bank, where there was a promising country walk, but the cruel visitors had left no time for exploring, and Albinia had to return home and hurry up her arrangements before there was space to turn round in her room—even then it was not what Winifred could have seen without making a face.
Mr. Kendal had read aloud to his wife in the evening during the stay at the sea-side, and she was anxious not to let the habit drop. He liked it, and read beautifully, and she thought it good for the children. She therefore begged him to read, catching him on the way to his study, and coaxing him to stay no longer than to find a book. He brought Schlegel's Philosophy of History. She feared that it was above the young ones, but it was delightful to herself, and the custom had better be established before it was perilled by attempts to adapt it to the children. Lucy and Sophy seemed astonished and displeased, and their whispers had to be silenced, Gilbert learnt his lessons apart. Albinia rallied her spirits, and insisted to herself that she did not feel discouraged.
Monday had gone, or rather Albinia had been robbed of it by visitors—now for a vigorous Tuesday. Her unpacking and her setting to rights were not half over, but as the surface was habitable, she resolved to finish at her leisure, and sacrifice no more mornings of study.
So after she had lingered at the door, to delight Gilbert by admiring his pony, she returned to the dining-room, where the girls were loading a small table in the window with piles of books and exercises, and Lucy was standing, looking all eagerness to show off her drawings.
'Yes, my dear, but first we had better read. I have been talking to your papa, and we have settled that on Wednesdays and Fridays we will go to church; but on these days we will begin by reading the Psalms and Lessons.'
'Oh,' said Lucy, 'we never do that, except when we are at grandmamma's.'
'Pray are you too old or too young for it?' said Albinia.
'We did it to please grandmamma,' said Sophy.
'Now you will do it to please me,' said Albinia, 'if for no better reason. Fetch your Bibles and Prayerbooks.'
'We shall never have time for our studies, I assure you, mamma,' objected Lucy.
'That is not your concern,' said Albinia, her spirit rising at the girls' opposition. 'I wish for obedience.'
Lucy went, Sophy leant against the table like a post. Albinia regretted that the first shot should have been fired for such a cause, and sat perplexing herself whether it were worse to give way, or to force the girls to read Holy Scripture in such a mood.
Lucy came flying down with the four books in her hands, and began officiously opening them before her sister, and exhorting her not to give way to sullenness—she ought to like to read the Bible—which of course made Sophy look crosser. The desire to establish her authority conquered the scruple about reverence. Albinia set them to read, and suffered for it. Lucy road flippantly; Sophy in the hoarse, dull, dogged voice of a naughty boy. She did not dare to expostulate, lest she should exasperate the tempers that she had roused.
'Never mind,' she thought, 'when the institution is fixed, they will be more amenable.'
She tried a little examination afterwards, but not one answer was to be extracted from Sophy, and Lucy knew far less than the first class at Fairmead, and made her replies wide of the mark, with an air of satisfaction that nearly overthrew the young step-mother's patience.
When Albinia took her Bible upstairs, she gave Sophy time to say what Lucy reported instantly on her entrance.
'Dear me, mamma, here is Sophy declaring that you ought to be a charity-schoolmistress. You wont be angry with her, but it is so funny!'
'If you were at my charity school, Lucy,' said Albinia, 'the first lesson I should give you would be against telling tales.'
Albinia turned to Sophy. 'My dear,' she said, 'perhaps I pressed this on when you were not prepared for it, but I have always been used to think of it as a duty.'
Sophy made no answer, but her moody attitude relaxed, and Albinia took comfort in the hope that she might have been gracious if she had known how to set about it.
'I suppose Miss Belmarche is a Roman Catholic,' she said, wishing to account for this wonderful ignorance, and addressing herself to Sophy; but Lucy, whom she thought she had effectually put down, was up again in a moment like a Jack-in-a-box.
'O yes, but not Genevieve. Her papa made it his desire that she should be brought up a Protestant. Wasn't it funny? You know Genevieve is Madame Belmarche's grand-daughter, and Mr. Durant was a dancing-master.'
'Madame Belmarche's father and brother were guillotined,' continued Sophy.
'Ah! then she is an emigrant?'
'Yes. Miss Belmarche has always kept school here. Our own mamma, and Aunt Maria went to school to her, and Miss Celeste Belmarche married Mr. Durant, a dancing-master—she was French teacher in a school in London where he taught, and Madame Belmarche did not approve, for she and her husband were something very grand in France, so they waited and waited ever so long, and when at last they did marry, they were quite old, and she died very soon; and they say he never was happy again, and pined away till he really did die of grief, and so Genevieve came to her grandmamma to be brought up.'
'Poor child! How old is she?'
'Fifteen,' said Lucy. 'She teaches in the school. She is not at all pretty, and such a queer little thing.'
'Was her father French?'
'No,' said Sophy.
'Yes,' said Lucy. 'You know nothing about it, Sophy. He was French, but of the Protestant French sort, that came to England a great many years ago, when they ran away from the Sicilian Vespers, or the Edict of Nantes, I don't remember which; only the Spitalfields weavers have something to do with it. However, at any rate Genevieve has got something in a drawer up in her own room that she is very secret about, and wont show to anybody.'
'I think it is something that somebody was killed with,' said Sophy, in a low voice.
'Dear me, if it is, I am sure it is quite wicked to keep it. I shall be quite afraid to go into her room, and you know I slept there all the time of the fever.'
'It did not hurt you,' said Sophy.
Albinia had been strongly interested by the touching facts, so untouchingly narrated, and by the characteristic account of the Huguenot emigration, but it suddenly occurred to her that she was promoting gossip, and she returned to business. Lucy showed off her attainments with her usual self-satisfaction. They were what might be expected from a second-rate old-fashioned young ladies' school, where nothing was good but the French pronunciation. She was evidently considered a great proficient, and her glib mediocrity was even more disheartening than the ungracious carelessness or dulness— there was no knowing which—that made her sister figure wretchedly in the examination. However, there was little time—the door-bell rang at a quarter to twelve, and Mrs. Wolfe was in the drawing-room.
'I told you so,' whispered Lucy, exultingly.
'This is unbearable,' cried Albinia. 'I shall give notice that I am always engaged in the morning.'
She desired each young lady to work a sum in her absence, and left them to murmur, if they were so disposed. Perhaps it was Lucy's speech that made her inflict the employment; at any rate, her spirit was not as serene as she could have desired.
Mr. Kendal was quite willing that she should henceforth shut her door against company in the morning; that is to say, he bowed his head assentingly. She was begging him to take a walk with her, when, at another sound of the bell, he made a precipitate retreat into his study. The visitors were the Belmarche family. The old lady was dark and withered, small, yet in look and air, with a certain nobility and grandeur that carried Albinia back in a moment to the days of hoops and trains, of powder and high-heeled shoes, and made her feel that the sweeping courtesy had come straight from the days of Marie Antoinette, and that it was an honour and distinction conferred by a superior—superior, indeed, in all the dignity of age, suffering, and constancy.
Albinia blushed, and took her hand with respect very unlike the patronizing airs of Bayford Bridge towards 'poor old Madame Belmarche,' and with downcast eyes, and pretty embarrassment, heard the stately compliments of the ancien regime.
Miss Belmarche was not such a fine specimen of Sevres porcelain as her mother. She was a brown, dried, small woman, having lost, or never possessed, her country's taste in dress, and with a rusty bonnet over the tight, frizzly curls of her front, too thin and too scantily robed to have any waist, and speaking English too well for the piquant grace of her mother's speech. Poor lady! born an exile, she had toiled, and struggled for a whole lifetime to support her mother; but though care had worn her down, there was still vivacity in her quick little black eyes, and though her teeth were of a dreadful colour, her laugh was so full of life and sweetness, that Albinia felt drawn towards her in a moment.
Silent and demure, plainly dressed in an old dark merino, and a white-ribboned faded bonnet, sat a little figure almost behind her grandmother. Her face had the French want of complexion, but the eyes were of the deepest, most lustrous hue of grey, almost as dark as the pupils, and with the softness of long dark eyelashes—beautiful eyes, full of light and expression—and as she moved towards the table, there was a finish and delicacy about the whole form and movements, that made her a most pleasing object.
But Albinia could not improve her acquaintance, for in flowed another party of visitors, and Madame curtsied herself out again, Albinia volunteering that she would soon come to see her, and being answered, 'You will do me too much honour.'
Another afternoon devoured by visitors! Every one seemed to have come except the persons who would have been most welcome, Mr. Dusautoy, and Winifred's friends, the Nugents.
When, at four o'clock, she had shaken hands with the last guest, she gave a hearty yawn, jumped up and shook herself, as she exclaimed, 'There! There! that is done! I wonder whether your papa would come out now?'
'He is in his study,' said the girls.
Albinia thought of knocking and calling at the door, but somehow it seemed impossible, and she decided on promenading past his window to show that she was ready for him. But alas! those evergreens! She could not see in, and probably he could not see out.
'Ha!' cried Lucy, as they pursued their walk into the kitchen garden, 'here are some asparagus coming up. Grandmamma always has our first asparagus.'
Albinia was delighted to find such an opening. Out came her knife— they would cut the heads and take them up at once; but when the tempting white-stalked, pink-tipped bundle had been made up and put into a basket, a difficulty arose.
'I'll call the boy to take it,' said Lucy.
'What, when we are going ourselves?' said Albinia.
'Oh! but we can't.'
'Why? Do you think we shall break down under the weight?'
'O no, but people will stare.'
'Why—what should they stare at?'
'It looks so to carry a basket—'
Albinia burst into one of her merriest peals of laughing.
'Not carry a basket! My dear, I have looked so all the days of my life. Bayford must endure the spectacle, so it may as well begin at once.'
'But, dear mamma—'
'I'm not asking you to carry it. O no, I only hope you don't think it too ungenteel to walk with me. But the notion of calling a boy away from his work, to carry a couple of dozen asparagus when an able-bodied woman is going that way herself!'
Albinia was so tickled that she could hardly check herself, even when she saw Lucy looking distressed and hurt, and little laughs would break out every moment as she beheld the young lady keeping aloof, as if ashamed of her company, turning towards the steep church steps, willing at least to hide the dreadful sight from the High Street.
Just as they had entered the narrow alley, they heard a hasty tread, and almost running over them with his long strides, came Mr. Dusautoy. He brought himself up short, just in time, and exclaimed, 'I beg your pardon—Mrs. Kendal, I believe. Could you be kind enough to give me a glass of brandy?'
Albinia gave a great start, as well she might.
'I was going to fetch one,' quickly proceeded Mr. Dusautoy, 'but your house is nearer. A poor man—there—just come home—been on the tramp for work—quite exhausted—' and he pointed to one of the cottages.
'I'll fetch it at once,' cried Albinia.
'Thank you,' he said, as they crossed the street. 'This poor fellow has had nothing all day, has walked from Hadminster—just got home, sank down quite worn out, and there is nothing in the house but dry bread. His wife wants something nearly as much as he does.'
In the excitement, Albinia utterly forgot all scruples about 'Bluebeard's closet.' She hurried into the house, and made but one dash, standing before her astonished husband's dreamy eyes, exclaiming, 'Pray give me the key of the cellaret; there's a poor man just come home, fainting with exhaustion, Mr. Dusautoy wants some brandy for him.'
Like a man but half awake, obeying an apparition, Mr. Kendal put his hand into his pocket and gave her the key. She was instantly opening the cellaret, seeking among the bottles, and asking questions all the time. She proposed taking a jug of the kitchen-tea then in operation, and Mr. Dusautoy caught at the idea, so that poor Lucy beheld the dreadful spectacle of the vicar bearing a can full of steaming tea, and Mrs. Kendal a small cup with the 'spirituous liquor.' What was the asparagus to this?
Albinia told her to go on to Mrs. Meadows', and that she should soon follow. She intended to have gone the moment that she had carried in the cup, leaving Mr. Dusautoy in the cottage, but the poor trembling frightened wife needed woman's sympathy and soothing, and she waited to comfort her, and to see the pair more able to enjoy the meeting, in their tidy, but bare and damp-looking cottage. She promised broth for the morrow, and took her leave, the vicar coming away at the same time.
'Thank you,' he said, warmly, as they came out, and turned to mount the hill together.
'May I go and call on them again?'
'It will be very kind in you. Poor Simkins is a steady, good sort of fellow, but a clumsy workman, down-hearted, and with poor health, and things have been untoward with him.'
'People, who do not prosper in the world are not always the worst,' said Albinia.
'No, indeed, and these are grateful, warm-hearted people that you will like, if you can get over the poor woman's lackadaisical manner. But you are used to all that,' he added, smiling. 'I see you know what poor folk are made of.'
'I have been living among them nearly all my days,' said Albinia. 'I hope you will give me something to do, I should be quite forlorn without it;' and she looked up to his kind, open face, as much at home with him as if she had known, him for years.
'Fanny—my wife—shall find work for you,' he said. 'You must excuse her calling on you, she is never off the sofa, but—' And what a bright look he gave! as much as to say that his wife on the sofa was better than any one else off. 'I was hoping to call some of these afternoons,' he continued, 'but I have had little time, and Fanny thought your door was besieged enough already.'
'Thank you,' said Albinia; 'I own I thought it was your kindness in leaving me a little breathing time. And would Mrs. Dusautoy be able to see me if I were to call?'
'She would be delighted. Suppose you were to come in at once.'
'I wish I could, but I must go on to Mrs. Meadows'. If I were to come to-morrow?'
'Any time—any time,' he said. 'She is always at home, and she has been much better since we came here. We were too much in the town at Lauriston.'
Mr. Dusautoy, having a year ago come out of the diocese where had been Albinia's home, they had many common friends, and plunged into 'ecclesiastical intelligence,' with a mutual understanding of the topics most often under discussion, that made Albinia quite in her element. 'A great Newfoundland dog of a man in size, and countenance, and kindness,' thought she. 'If his wife be worthy of him, I shall reck little of all the rest.'
Her tread the gayer for this resumption of old habits, she proceeded to Mrs. Meadows', where the sensation created by her poor little basket justified Lucy's remonstrance. There were regrets, and assurances that the girl could have come in a moment, and that she need not have troubled herself, and her laughing declarations that it was no trouble were disregarded, except that the old lady said, in gentle excuse to her daughter, that Mrs. Kendal had always lived in the country, where people could do as they pleased.
'I mean to do as I please here,' said Albinia, laughing; but the speech was received with silent discomfiture that made her heartily regret it. She disdained to explain it away; she was beginning to hold Mrs. and Miss Meadows too cheap to think it worth while.
'Well,' said Mrs. Meadows, as if yielding up the subject, 'things may be different from what they were in my time.'
'Oh! mamma—Mrs. Kendal—I am sure—' Albinia let Maria flounder, but she only found her way out of the speech with 'Well! and is not it the most extraordinary!—Mr. Dusautoy—so rude—'
'I should not wonder if you found me almost as extraordinary as Mr. Dusautoy,' said Albinia.
Why would Miss Meadows always nettle her into saying exactly the wrong thing, so as to alarm and distress the old lady? That want of comprehension of playfulness was a strangely hard trial. She turned to Mrs. Meadows and tried to reassure her by saying, 'You know I have been always in the clerical line myself, so I naturally take the part of the parson.'
'Yes, my dear,' said Mrs. Meadows. 'I dare say Mr, Dusautoy is a very good man, but I wish he would allow his poor delicate wife more butcher's meat, and I don't think it looks well to see the vicarage without a man-servant.'
Albinia finally made her escape, and while wondering whether she should ever visit that house without tingling with irritation with herself and with the inmates, Lucy exclaimed, 'There, you see I was right. Grandmamma and Aunt Maria were surprised when I told them that you said you were an able-bodied woman.'
What would not Albinia have given for Winifred to laugh with her? What to do now she did not know, so she thought it best not to hear, and to ask the way to a carpenter's shop to order some book-shelves.
She was more uncomfortable after she came home, for by the sounds when Mr. Kendal next emerged from his study, she found that he had locked himself in, to guard against further intrusion. And when she offered to return to him the key of the cellaret, he quietly replied that he should prefer her retaining it,—not a formidable answer in itself, but one which, coupled with the locking of the door, proved to her that she might do anything rather than invade his privacy.
Now Maurice's study was the thoroughfare of the household, the place for all parish preparations unpresentable in the drawing-room, and Albinia was taken by surprise. She grew hot and cold. Had she done anything wrong? Could he care for her if he could lock her out?
'I will not be morbid, I will not be absurd,' said she to herself, though the tears stood in her eyes. 'Some men do not like to be rushed in upon! It may be only habit. It may have been needful here. It is base to take petty offences, and set up doubts.'
And Mr. Kendal's tender manner when they were again together, his gentle way of addressing her, and a sort of shy caress, proved that he was far from all thought of displeasure; nay, he might be repenting of his momentary annoyance, though he said nothing.
Albinia went to inquire after the sick man at her first leisure moment, and while talking kindly to the wife, and hearing her troubles, was surprised at the forlorn rickety state of the building, the broken pavement, damp walls, and door that would not shut, because the frame had sunk out of the perpendicular.
'Can't you ask your landlord to do something to the house?'
'It is of no use, ma'am, Mr. Pettilove never will do nothing. Perhaps if you would be kind enough to say a word to him, ma'am—'
'Mr. Pettilove, the lawyer? I'll try if Mr. Kendal can say anything to him. It really is a shame to leave a house in this condition.'
Thanks were so profuse, that she feared that she was supposed to possess some power of amelioration. The poor woman even insisted on conducting her up a break-neck staircase to see the broken ceiling, whence water often streamed in plentifully from the roof.
Her mind full of designs against the cruel landlord, she speeded up the hill, exhilarated by each step she took into the fresh air, to the garden-gate, which she was just unhasping when the hearty voice of the Vicar was heard behind her. 'Mrs. Kendal! I told Fanny you would come.'
Instead of taking her to the front door he conducted her across a sloping lawn towards a French window open to the bright afternoon sunshine.
'Here she is, here is Mrs. Kendal!' he said, sending his voice before him, as they came in sight of the pretty little drawing-room, where through the gay chintz curtains, she saw the clear fire shining upon half-a-dozen school girls, ranged opposite to a couch. 'Ah!' as he perceived them, 'shall I take her for a turn in the garden while you finish your lesson?'
'One moment, if you please. I did not know it was so late,' and a face as bright as all the rest was turned towards the window.
'Ah! give her her scholars, and she never knows how time passes,' said Mr. Dusautoy. 'But step this way, and I'll show you the best view in Bayford.' He took her up a step or two, to a little turfed mound, where there was a rustic seat commanding the whole exquisite view of river, vale, and woodland, with the church tower rising in the foreground. The wind blew pleasantly, chasing the shadows of the clouds across the open space. Albinia was delighted to feel it fan her brow, and her eager exclamations contented Mr. Dusautoy. 'Yes,' he said, 'it was all Fanny's notion. She planned it all last summer when I took her round the garden. It is wonderful what an eye she has! I only hope when the dry weather comes, that I shall be able to get her up there to enjoy it.'
On coming down they found that Mrs. Dusautoy had dismissed her class, and come out to a low, long-backed sloping garden-seat at the window. She was very little and slight, a mere doll in proportion to her great husband, who could lift her as easily and tenderly as a baby, paying her a sort of reverential deference and fond admiration that rendered them a beautiful sight, in such full, redoubled measure was his fondness repaid by the little, clever, fairy-looking woman, with her playful manner, high spirits, keen wit, and the active habits that even confirmed invalidism could not destroy. She had small deadly white hands, a fair complexion, that varied more than was good for her, pretty, though rather sharp and irregular features, and hazel eyes dancing with merriment, and face and figure at some years above thirty, would have suited a girl of twenty. To see Mr. Dusautoy bringing her footstools, shawls, and cushions, and to remember the accusation of starvation, was almost irresistibly ludicrous.
'Now, John, you had better have been giving Mrs. Kendal a chair all this time.'
'Mrs. Kendal will excuse,' said Mr. Dusautoy, as he brought her a seat.
'Mrs. Kendal has excused,' said Mrs. Dusautoy, bursting into a merry fit of laughter. 'Oh, I never heard anything more charming than your introduction! I beg your pardon, but I laughed last evening till I was worn out, and waked in the night laughing again.'
It was exhilarating to find that any one laughed at Bayford, and Albinia partook of the mirth with all her heart. 'Never was an address more gratifying to me!' she said.
'It was like him! so unlike Bayford! So bold a venture!' continued Mrs. Dusautoy amid peals of laughter.
'What is there to laugh at?' said Mr. Dusautoy, putting on a look between merriment and simplicity. 'What else could I have done? I should have done the same whoever I had met.'
'Ah! now he is afraid of your taking it as too great a compliment! To do him justice I believe he would, but the question is, what answer he would have had.'
'Nobody could have refused—' began Albinia.
'Oh!' cried Mrs. Dusautoy. 'Little you know Bayford.
'Fanny! Fanny! this is too bad. Madame Belmarche—'
'Would have had nothing but eau sucre! No, John, decidedly you and Simkins fell upon your legs, and you bad better take credit for your "admirable sagacity."'.
'I like the people,' said Albinia, 'but they never can be well while they live in such a shocking place. It is quite a disgrace to Bayford.'
'It is in a sad state,' said Mr. Dusautoy.
'I know I should like to set my brother upon that Mr. Pettilove, who they say will do nothing,' exclaimed Albinia.
The Vicar was going to have said something, but a look from his wife checked him. Albinia was sorry for it, as she detected a look of suppressed amusement on Mrs. Dusautoy's face. 'I mean to ask Mr. Kendal what can be done,' she said; 'and in the meantime, to descend from what we can't do to what we can. Mr. Dusautoy told me to come to you for orders.'
'And I told Mr. Dusautoy that I should give you none.'
'Oh! that is hard.'
'If you could have heard him! He thought he had got a working lady at last, and he would have had no mercy upon you. One would have imagined that Mr. Kendal had brought you here for his sole behoof!'
'Then I shall look to you, Mr. Dusautoy.'
'No, I believe she is quite right,' he said. 'She says you ought to undertake nothing till yon have had time to see what leisure you have to give us.'
'Nay, I have been used to think the parish my business, home my leisure.'
'Yes,' said Mrs. Dusautoy, 'but then you were the womankind of the clergy, now you are a laywoman.'
'I think you have work at home,' said the Vicar.
'Work, but not work enough!' cried Albinia. 'The girls will help me; only tell me what I may do.'
'I say, "what you can,"' said Mrs. Dusautoy. 'You see before you a single-handed man. Only two of the ladies here can be called coadjutors, one being poor little Genevieve Durant, the other the bookseller's daughter, Clarissa Richardson, who made all the rest fly off. All the others do what good they mean to do according to their own sweet will, free and independent women, and we can't have any district system, so I think you can only do what just comes to hand.'
Most heartily did Albinia undertake all that Mrs. Dusautoy would let her husband assign to her.
'Yes, John is a strong temptation,' said the bright little invalid, 'but you must let Mrs. Kendal find out in a month's time whether she has work enough.'
'I could think my wise brother Maurice had been cautioning you,' said Albinia, taking leave as of an old friend, for indeed she felt more at home with Mrs. Dusautoy than with any acquaintance she had made in Bayford.
Albinia told her husband of the state of the cottages, and railed at Mr. Pettilove much to her own satisfaction. Mr. Kendal answered, 'He would see about it,' an answer of which Albinia had yet to learn the import.
There are some characters so constituted, that of them the old proverb, that Love is blind, is perfectly true; they can see no imperfection in the mind or body of those dear to them. There are others in whom the strongest affections do not destroy clearness of vision, who see their friends on all sides, and perceive their faults and foibles, without loving them the less.
Albinia Kendal was a person of the latter description. It might almost be called her temptation, that her mind beheld all that came before it in a clear, and a humorous light, such as only a disposition overflowing with warm affection and with the energy of kindness, could have prevented from bordering upon censoriousness. She had imagination, but it was not such as to make an illusion of the present, or to interfere with her almost satirical good sense. Happily, religion and its earthly manifestation—charity regulated her, taught her to fear to judge lest she should be judged, strengthened her naturally fond affections, and tempered the keenness that disappointment might soon have turned to sourness. The tongue, the temper, and the judgment knew their own tendencies, and a guard was set over them; and if the sentinel were ever torpid or deceived, repentance paid the penalty.
She had not long seen her husband at home before she had involuntarily completed her view of his character. Nature must have designed him for a fellow of a college, where, apart from all cares, he might have collected fragments of forgotten authors, and immortalized his name by some edition of a Greek Lyric poet, known by four poems and a half, and two-thirds of a line quoted somewhere else. In such a controversy, lightened by perpetually polished poems, by a fair amount of modern literature, select college friendships, and methodical habits, Edmund Kendal would have been in his congenial element, lived and died, and had his portrait hung up as one of the glories of his college.